Meles Zenawi: Dedicated Peace Advocate and a Brilliant Military Strategist

By Sani Awol
Feb. 11, 2013

This post contains PART I and PART II

A week after the untimely and tragic death of H.E. the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the prominent local elder Professor Ephrem Yishak revealed a story we never heard bofore.

He said: in 1989 when a group of Ethiopian scholars and elders sent a request for all Ethiopian parties to take part in a peace talk, it was Meles who responded first without preconditions.

The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was a dedicated peace advocate and a brilliant military strategist.

The story was a new one for the general public. Nonetheless, it was consistent with Meles’s image as a peace maker. All who observed his leading role in the efforts to resolve conflicts across Africa, disagreements among leaders in the African Union and the olive branch he repeatedly extended for trouble makers at home and the region would agree that he was a man of peace.

Therefore, Ephrem Yitsak’s account of Meles’s unconditional willingness to negotiate with all forces for peace was not that surprising.

What we didn’t know much about was he was at the same time an architect of the effective use of the military which is necessary when the peace effort fails.

Though TPLF have been fighting since 1975, Dergue was unwilling even to seat and talk for a decade. The pivotal turn that forced Dergue to recognize TPLF came when it was around 10 years old. Until then, though TPLF controlled almost 90% of Tigray, its military tactic had been limited to guerilla warfare methods.

TPLF’s military strategy couldn’t take the struggle to the next stage of asserting full control on the region and flushing the Dergue army from its strong holds and bases around urban centers. So, TPLF’s fast progress was facing a setback.

About the same time, drought hit northern Ethiopia. Millions in Tigray were threatened by famine, as the drought coupled with years of war, poor provision of agricultural input and market access as well as recurrent irresponsible bombing of civilian areas by the Dergue. Even more sadly, the Dergue refused TPLF’s offer for a truce and for providing full access to humanitarian agencies.

So, TPLF had to avert the catastrophe by sharing its fighter’s food to surrounding people, by transporting hundreds of thousands to refugee centers in Sudan and by lobbying & providing protections for aid organizations who were willing to enter through the border with Sudan.

The lesson of all these were clear for Meles Zenawi, who was rising as the mastermind of TPLF interms of systematizing the party’s political positions and in upgrading its organizational structure.

Meles, alongside similar minded leaders, convinced the party leadership that it is time to divorce with the outdated strategy. The only way to stop the suffering of the people is to shorten the war either through peace talks with the Dergue or by defeating it militarily.

For either of the two to happen, TPLF must embark on a conventional warfare strategy and take the war into a higher stage.

Subsequently, Meles developed a researched Military doctrine of TPLF. The doctrine provided a clear guide on how TPLFs military capacity should be built, how it should fight, how it should secure areas under its control and how it achieves superiority over enemy forces.

Meles developed the doctrine based on international experience, the nature of TPLF, the nature of Dergue and the nature of the war. Meles prepared both the first draft paper and the final document after discussion with his colleagues and also gave trainings for TPLF fighters.

Meles’s doctrine was tested and proved effective immediately after the trainings when Dergue mobilized huge army to the region boasting it will end TPLF once and for all. By applying Meles’s military doctrine, TPLF fighters annihilated tens of thousands Dergue army which camped around Shere town and soon flushed Dergue from all over Tigray.
Dergue was forced to admit it was fighting with a popular force rather than than “some bandits”.

TPLF fighters guided by Meles’s military doctrine faced major setback of strategy only once when they fought Dergue army around Guna mountains in 1989. Even then, Meles who was hundreds kilometers away, developed an improvised strategy and sent to the commanders on the field, who successfully implemented it.

Guided by Meles’s doctrine and effective commanders, TPLF fighters had became unstoppable after the mid-1980s.
However, that didn’t turn Meles into a military adventurist. He consistently perused negotiations and peace talks both with the Dergue and other armed groups regardless of TPLF’s fast growing military strength.

He and his party persistently perused talks with OLF to establish ties and a common front. Though OLF had been ideologically unfocused and militarily weak organization that it was believed better to include all forces of change rather than rely on sheer military power.

Meles’s leading motto was to mobilize everyone who can contribute even by throwing a stone. Sadly, OLF was not of the same attitude. After several time-wasting discussions and talks, when TPLF sent as per their agreement two of its cadres to help train OLF fighters, OLF officials mistreated them labeling them spies and the whole effort failed.
Nonetheless, when Meles became a transitional President his first task was inviting OLF to become part of the government including ministerial positions.

Meles’s attitude towards ANDM founders is perhaps most representative of his foresight and firm belief in cooperation. When ANDM founders split from EPRP and took refuge in TPLF control area, it was Meles (he was only an executive member) who lobbied TPLF leadership to treat them as partners and not to disarm them. As he predicted ANDM became a well-organized force of revolutionary-democracy in a few years time.

Despite the difference in the number of fighters and resources, Meles remained firmly committed to equal partnership. When EPRDF was formed in 1988/89, TPLF and ANDM took equal seats in the leadership of the organization and elected Meles as their leader. This principle was applied when OPDO and SEPDM later joined EPRDF.

It was at this time that a group of elders and scholars led by Professor Ephrem Yishak sent letters to Ethiopian armed as well as the Dergue regime requesting their willingness for peace talks. Meles was the first to respond and affirm his party’s willingness, while Dergue never sent a reply letter except oral responses.

Meles’s confirmation was not a lip service. In fact he sent a second letter urging them to hold the peace talks at the earliest time possible to save lives. Proffessor Ephrem described the situation as follows:

<< የደርግን ደብዳቤ በመጠባበቅ ላይ እያለን ከጠቅላይ ሚኒስትር መለስ ዜናዊ በድጋሚ ሌላ ደብዳቤ መጣልን፡፡ በወቅቱ እነሱ እያሸነፉ ነበር፡፡ ይኼም ቢሆን ግን ‹‹አሸናፊ ነኝና ዕርቅ አልፈልግም›› አላሉም፡፡ እኛ ሁሉንም የፖለቲካ ድርጅቶች ስዊስ ላይ ለመሰብሰብ ያሰብነው እ.ኤ.አ በሰኔ ወር 1989 ላይ ነበር፡፡ በደብዳቤያቸው ‹‹ስብሰባችሁን ሰኔ ከማድረግ ይልቅ ወደ ግንቦት ቀረብ አድርጉት›› ብለው ጻፉልን፡፡ ቆም ብዬ ስለሁለተኛው ደብዳቤያቸው ሳስብ፣ ሁሉም ነገር በሰላም እንዲያልቅ የነበራቸው ፍላጐትን ያሳየኛል፡፡ ጦርነት ከቀጠለ ብዙ ሰው እንደሚያልቅ ገብቷቸዋል፡፡ >>

However, due to Dergue’s reluctance the elders’ effort didn’t bore fruit and the Americans had to intervene as negotiators.

Meles remained willing to hold peace talks with the Dergue even when EPRDF fighters reached the outskirts of Addis Ababa and until Dergue became an irrelevant force by the change of the situation on the ground.

The EPRDF army, shaped by Meles’s military doctrine, triumphantly entered Addis Ababa.

Meles’s commitment to go half the way for the sake of peace and, when that fails, to guide the military option in the most scientific and less costly manner continued at a larger scale after EPRDF assumed governmental power in Ethiopia.

“Every day of peace is more valuable to us than anyone else. Don’t take it as bragging, but every single peaceful day has more worth to us.”

These were the words Meles Zenawi spoke during his first press conference following the aggression by Eritrea in 1998.

When citizens were angered by the violation of their sovereignty and when politicians were rushing for cheap popularity, Meles Zenawi was one of the few voices of reason who reminded the nation the cost of war.

Meles knew better than to be swayed by emotion. He knows his duty is to lead the people not taking populist positions for personal ambitions. Thus, even though Meles knew that his patriotism was being questioned in the private press, he didn’t pander for cheap popularity in his first press conference following the aggression.

Instead, he assertively said:

“we have shown our manhood(warrior-skill) for centuries. We had enough of it. Our priority is the battle with poverty. We can’t spare a day from this battle. Every day of peace is more valuable to us than anyone else. Don’t take it as bragging, but every single peaceful day has more worth to us”

Obviously, Meles more than anyone else was angered by President Isaias Afeworki’s madness. Eritrea’s aggression was in clear contradiction of what the two governments’ have been discussing for several years. It was an attack against his leadership, against his home land, against his party and above all against his beloved country.

Nonetheless, he saw every single day of war will drain the nation’s treasury, workforce and other resources. It will also make a heavy military buildup necessary, as the veteran TPLF fighters had been demobilized.

In the mid-1990s, with the official establishment of the national defense forces, almost 40,000 TPLF fighters were demobilized for the sake of balancing ethnic composition. Therefore, the only way to bring ethnic representation in the army, without making it too large, was retiring part of the existing army.

Moreover, everyone at the time believed Ethiopia has no real military threat from its neighbors. Even the opposition camp spiritual father Proff. Mesfin Woldemariam wrote in his book “in 1995 that “the only purpose of an army is too oppress the citizens as none of the neighboring countries will dare to invade Ethiopia. Therefore, we should only have a police force.”

Meles was not that much idealist but he believed in building a small, effective and cost-efficient army that would not be a burden to the economy. In consequence, tens of thousands fighters trained and experienced by Meles’s doctrine of war were demobilized and returned to civilian life.

The nation was slowly building a heterogeneous, competent army spending less than 4% of the GDP. The nation’s GDP growth was averaging about 7-8% per year. War would reverse all this.

Meles was worried about all that and wished to avoid war. But that was not because he didn’t care or didn’t know about war. As August 1998 telegram of US Embassy Addis Ababa, published by Wikileaks, summary of Meles’s discussion with US diplomats shows, his position was firm. He said:

With the invasion of Badme and the attempt to change facts on the ground by force, Eritrea crossed an Ethiopian red line. On other issues, Ethiopia might have agreed to turn its cheek, but this affront was so great that to let it pass in silence would have been essentially to relinquish national sovereignty. Thus, the demand that Isaias withdraw and that Badme be returned to the status quo ante is everything. If he does, then perhaps he will have learned his lesson. If he does not, then he must be taught.

what is important is that the invader withdraw before the invaded. Eritrea has to do this unilaterally, not as its side of a joint withdrawal for demilitarization. That will make the point to all Eritreans that there can be no change by force, and they will act as a brake on Isaias should he wish to go adventuring again. That will be Ethiopia’s guarantee of security in future.

It was not mere rhetoric. When war became inevitable, Meles the military strategist came out.

He visited battle areas and army barracks without making it a public relation exercise.

By analyzing the first round of battles, he developed a researched guide for the war, including how battles should be coordinated and executed and what the role of each level of commander should be.

He developed four strategic documents. He personally prepared the first two key and detailed documents, on “depth operation” and on “the use of force”. He also outlined the contents of two other smaller documents, which were prepared by his officials. He also gave orientation for the field commanders who successfully executed the documents and achieved a historic victory against the Eritrean army which has been preparing for a decade.

Once our sovereignty was restored, Meles didn’t hesitate for peace despite calls for adventurism from some sections. Having restored sovereignty and with Eritrea signing a humiliating treaty to demilitarize 25 kilometer deep from the border and be patrolled by international peacekeeping troops until all outstanding matters are resolved, Meles was eager to return to economic building and improving the life of Ethiopians.

However, Meles didn’t neglect the national defense forces. He resumed his effort to build a small, effective and cost-efficient army that would not be a burden to the economy.

Meles prepared a policy document “Revolutionary democracy and Defense capacity building” and trained the army officers and relevant officials. He consistently followed-up the army’s recruitment, promotion and logistical and operational capabilities.

Therefore, when the so-called Union of Islamic Courts controlled most of Somalia and started declared jihad in Ethiopia, the national defense forces were well-prepared to deal with them.

However, Meles was not in rush to show his military power rather he gave peace a chance. He sent his officials to from London to Qatar and other places about 5 times for a peace talk with the UIC officials. He went as far as inviting them to Addis Ababa, but they declined as it would be ‘recognizing’ Ethiopia – a country they vowed to punish. In fact, they considered the peace overtures as a fear on Ethiopian side.

Even the Americans were worried that Ethiopia could be defeated. As the December 2006 Wikileaks cable state:

“In five meetings with Prime Minister Meles and separate meetings with Foreign Minister Seyoum and ENDF Chief of Staff General Samora during the week of November 27, the Ambassador and U.S. visitors, including General Abizaid and Senator Feingold, raised the need for Ethiopia to be cautious in taking any action in Somalia.”

However, as much as Meles efforted for peace, he was not going to bargain on Ethiopia’s security intersts and he knew he built a reliable army. As the same cable recorded:

“Meles noted to us that his forces will “take their time,” carefully analyzing the situation in Somalia. However, he told us that UIC attacks on the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Baidoa would prompt an immediate reaction by Ethiopia in defense of the TFG.”

When the UIC crossed the red line, Meles ordered a military assault at once. The defence forces built under Mele’s guidance and his military doctrine flushed UIC troops from Mogadishu in a few days and captured Kismayu less than two weeks after the start the military operation.

The effectiveness of Meles’s military doctrine could be better appreciated when we compare it how the Kenyan army struggled to capture Kismayu last year.

Following the astonishing success in Somalia, Ethiopia’s military capacity became undisputable by any knowledgeable security analyst.

However, Meles never turned his back to peace efforts even with minor trouble makers, such as the OLF and ONLF. He encouraged local elders, diplomats and others to bring the groups to peace talks.

When the ONLF killed more than 70 oil workers including Chinese citizens, Meles once again returned to his usual scientific guidance of military power. He developed a researched counter-insurgency manual that made ONLF almost non-existent in the region. An achievement exemplary even for army’s of rich countries equipped with state of the art technologies. Still, Meles never stopped his effort to bring the remnants of ONLF to peace until his last days.

What is most impressive about all this is that such an effective force was built with a total annual budget of less that 2% of the GDP, while the nation’s economy was growing.

This is a prove of the wisdom of Meles’s military doctrine that sums up both his commitment for peace and his insight as a military strategist. As he wrote in Ethiopia’s Foreign and Nationals security policy document:

“It must be clear that the primary objective of building up our defense capacity is that of deterrence. Efforts must be deployed to further the development of democracy, and not war. Our objective is to prosper, and not to achieve a state of military arrogance. We should go beyond conflict and engage in war for one and only one reason – when conditions are imposed that block our path to democracy and development,and negotiations yield no result. If faced with such a war, our objective is to emerge victorious with as limited an impact as possible on the national economy.”

The Military Strategist Meles Zenawi